Motherhood & Art: Mimi Albert on Maria Espinosa’s Dying Unfinished


Dying Unfinished, Maria Espinosa, Wings Press

“We spend so much energy hiding from the truth,” Maria Espinosa writes in this splendid new novel, Dying Unfinished. Espinosa, whose previous novels include Longing, Dark Plums, and Incognito: The Journey of a Secret Jew, refuses to allow herself, her readers, or any of the characters in this tangled and absorbing story to hide. From the first page to the last, she uncovers the hidden motives, unspoken passions, and many disappointments that too often bruise people who have been together for a long time.

The narrative is delivered by a variety of voices framed by different combinations of characters during different periods of their lives and even on different continents. The novel opens with Eleanor, a mother and daughter as well as a mistress and wife, traveling on a commuter train from suburban Long Island to meet her lover in a New York City bar. We glimpse Eleanor as a beautiful young woman as the story unfolds, being courted by Aaron, the man who becomes her lifelong husband as he attains prestige in the difficult world of modern art. Theirs is far from a simple story of adultery and retribution; Aaron is chronically adulterous and the relationship between them, while not quite “open,” seems not only to continue but to thrive in the warmth shed by their mutual deceptions.

When children come into this marriage (Jesse, Howard, and Rosa), they respond differently to their parents’ world of shadowy truths and half-told lies. Howard becomes practical and hard-working leaving the more artistic and volatile Jesse to encounter problems. Jesse falls ill with polio in one of the many epidemics of the 1950s; he also rebels against his family’s web of deceptions by making his own choices and being true to his own desires. But most volatile and most important to the story, is the daughter, Rosa, several years older than her brothers and too gifted and spirited to be contained within any conventional restraints, even those of literary description.

The story of these lives and the art created by them might seem overly complex were it not for the clarity with which the narrative is told. Espinosa takes the reader directly behind the eyes of her characters; she leads us into difficult relationships (Eleanor’s with her lovers, Rosa’s with a variety of men to whom she turns for solace as she grows into a troubled womanhood). But each episode is concisely contained and crystal clear in its telling as when Rosa finds herself in a whirlpool of self-destruction leading to her becoming a desolate ward of a mental institution; these scenes are gripping, vividly depicted, but never overdone.

By the time the book comes to its conclusion, the reader knows that somehow mother and daughter have achieved the reconciliation they have always sought achieving it through motherhood and art as has Espinosa becoming the first publisher of her own mother’s poetry, which heads many of the chapters of Dying Unfinished. It is a fitting homage to the struggles of these two women and a fitting ending to a difficult yet creative journey.

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